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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Ten Things I Learned From Knitting
Who knew that by learning to knit, we also learn how to live?
Jen Silverman, the young woman who taught me to knit, handed me a pair of knitting needles and a skein of yarn, took a long hard look at me, and took them back. “I was going to teach you how to cast on,” she said, somehow looping and pulling the yarn so that it magically appeared on one needle, “but you won’t be able to do it. I can tell.” Was it my trembling hands that gave me away? My sweaty palms? Or the look of terror on my face?
I was a forty-two-year-old woman who had come to Sakonnet Purls to learn to knit out of desperation. Grief was driving me crazy. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t read a book or write a simple paragraph. The loop in my life, unlike the ones that Jen expertly, easily used to cast on, was like a DVD stuck on play, the movie of the thirty-six hours I spent at my five-year-old daughter Grace’s side as she lay dying in a hospital ICU. Whenever I closed my eyes, or found myself alone or still, the loop began. Friends had promised me that knitting would make it go away, at least while those needles were in my hands and I knit.
Jen gave me the needles again, now with fourteen stitches curled around one of them. “I’ll keep casting on for you until you’re ready to learn how to do it yourself,” she said.
Casting on lays the foundation for knitting. It is the method by which stitches are formed. From there, you knit and purl your way to scarves and hats and all sorts of knitted wonders. I learned that long-ago autumn day, that sometimes, despite our desperation, our desire, we cannot cast on alone. It took many friends to lead me to Jen and learning to knit. It took me months of Jen carefully casting on my stitches for me. Then one day, she made a slipknot, and showed me how to begin on my own. I was ready to finally move on, to find my way back to wonder.
One of the things I loved about turning forty was that I could finally say no to all the things I didn’t want to do. I was, I thought, a fully formed person who knew her likes and dislikes, her strengths and limitations. As a younger woman, when someone suggested climbing down a rocky cliff to a perfect beach below, I went along, even though my fear of heights inevitably left me clinging to the face of that cliff, waiting to get rescued. When a cheerful group of skiing friends headed for a black diamond, I went along, even though that same fear of heights combined with a real lack of interest in skiing at all left me stranded on a mogul until the ski patrol came to get me. I went on long hot bike rides, hating every minute. I endured camping out when all I really wanted was a nice air-conditioned hotel room with a TV and room service.
But then I turned forty and somehow that gave me the freedom to say no. No, I don’t really like sushi that much. No, I don’t want to learn to surf in those giant crushing waves. No, no, no.
Knitting, which seems to a novice to be a passive, easy way to spend your time, is actually filled with hidden dangers. These include things like knitting two socks simultaneously on something called a magic loop; lace knitting; knitting patterns, like ducks or moose, that require grids and graphs and complicated mathematics; knitting on needles the size of toothpicks; knitting on needles the size of a drum majorette’s baton; decreasing stitches, increasing stitches, knitting behind and in front of stitches. Sometimes, knitting makes me dizzy.
For some reason that I don’t remember, cable stitches seemed to me to be the hardest thing of all. I admire them, the way they wind around each other, the way they rise above the other stitches. “It’s easy,” knitters always say about difficult things. Like cables. One Thanksgiving my friend Matt arrived with an almost-finished oatmeal-colored scarf, neat cables running the length of it. Matt is a new knitter. A beginner. “How did you do that?” I asked him, shocked. “It’s easy,” he said. Of course. Then he offered to show me. It did look easy, the way he put stitches on a cute little stitch holder and knit around them.
The next day, a pattern for an Irish hiking scarf—cables!—in hand, soft pewter-colored yarn, and my very own cable stitch holder, I began. Everything Matt had shown me completely vanished from my brain. I tried. And I tried. And I tried again. In my knitting room are dozens of projects I abandoned because they were impossible. A sweater with no sleeves (sew the seams? huh?). A winter hat with crooked misshapen ducks crashing into each other across it. This Irish hiking scarf was about to join all those other lost causes.
But I really wanted to knit cable stitches. I thought of Matt’s beautiful scarf, the cables snaking up it, intertwined. Determined, I went to YouTube and found a how-to video on knitting cables. I only had to watch it four times before I got it right. And although I still do not want to surf or scale cliffs or even eat sushi, I have found that on the evening I spent learning to knit cables, something in me changed. That is why I trekked into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to observe mountain gorillas, even though I was afraid. That is why I decided to write books for children, historical fiction, a television pilot. Because I’m not afraid to try, to learn, to knit the hardest thing.
Some Days It’s Okay to Just Knit Dishrags
One of my favorite things to knit is dishrags. Although I have a complicated basket weave type pattern for them, and although those dishrags look really really beautiful, I prefer to knit simpler ones. I know the pattern by heart: Cast on 4 stitches. Knit those 4 stitches. Then knit 2, yarn over, knit to the end of the row until there are 44 stitches. At that point, you knit 2 stitches together, yarn over again, knit 2 more stitches together, and knit to the end of the row until you’re back to 4 stitches. At that point, you have a dishrag. The yarn these require is cotton and sells at Walmart for about two dollars a skein. You get a couple of dishrags from that skein. I knit these so often that now I even make patterns, using up all my leftover bits to form stripes or zigzags or whatever. They are, after all, just dishrags. It’s hard to make an ugly one.
I like to knit dishrags for hostesses, even though when I present them at dinner parties I’m often met with a really confused look. “It’s a dishrag,” I explain. “I knit it for you.” “Um…thank you?” is a common response. I also like to knit them as thank-you gifts, or to give to people I really like. Some people love my dishrags. My friend Kimberley even asks for more of them. My friend Matthew held it to his face to soothe his aching jaw after he had his wisdom teeth out. I have friends who couldn’t bear to use them as dishrags. Too special, they say. Too pretty.
My favorite dishrags I’ve knit are white ones that my cousin Gloria-Jean and I tie-dyed. Years ago, when we were about thirteen years old, we saw John Sebastian (he of the Lovin’ Spoonful) perform solo at Brown University’s Spring Weekend. We fell in love that night—with the song “Darling Be Home Soon,” with any guy who plays a guitar, and with tie dye, which John Sebastian was decked out in from head to toe. That summer, we tie-dyed everything. We played “Darling Be Home Soon” and dreamed about boys and college and poetry as we tie-dyed in my hot backyard. This April, I had the opportunity to have dinner with John Sebastian and his wife. As soon as I learned about that dinner, I set to work knitting those two white dishrags. Then Gloria-Jean and I tie-dyed them and brought them to the dinner. The tie-dying was not so great; it had been forty years since we’d last done it. But I didn’t care. John Sebastian is the owner of my dishrags.
You see, I’m an overachiever. As a kid, I fretted over grades. Even an A– was enough to send me into a fit of anxiety. I need to make cookbook-perfect dinners. I need to write beautiful sentences, wear foundation and blush even if I’m just running an errand, look good, be good, impress, do better than last time, and then better still. But when I knit dishrags, all that goes away. Sometimes, it’s enough to just cast on 4 stitches, use cheap cotton yarn, and knit a really simple thing for someone.
Sometimes I Need to Knit a Blanket
The summer I decided to knit my friend Hillary Day a blanket as a wedding gift, I thought I was doing it because I love Hil-lary and I wanted to give her the most special present I could. And I wanted to flex my knitting muscles a little since I’d only been doing it about six months and was kind of giddy about yarn. I ordered a pattern with yarn in shades of white, from pure white to eggshell and oyster and pale pink and even an apricot color. I spent hours on my sofa, the yarn tumbling onto my lap like waves washing over me.
When I knit, everything else vanishes. Sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion. It is just me and the yarn and the lovely sound of my needles clicking together. I didn’t realize then, but probably the real reason I decided to embark on such a big and time-consuming project was to not think about Hillary’s wedding. Hillary Day was the nanny for my kids, Sam and Grace, from two days before Grace was born until a few years later when Hillary graduated from RISD and moved away. We all adored her. She made us salads and hats and painted the walls in warm cheerful colors. After she left, Sam would call her and sing to her and Grace would send Hillary her drawings.
In 2002, Hillary had moved back to Portland, Oregon, and was working for Adidas. That April, Grace died, and Hillary came all the way across the country to be with us, clutching photographs of Grace as a baby to give us. The next summer, we were going to her wedding in Bend, and I began to knit that blanket. Looking back, I remember how I felt about that trip west, how being around strangers at that time made me panic; how Grace should have been there with us, dressed in pink and twirling with Sam on the dance floor; how time kept moving forward without Grace, and I couldn’t stop it. So instead, I knit. For hours and hours, that wedding blanket eventually covering me.
A few weeks ago, sitting alone on a gray afternoon, I decided I wanted to knit a blanket. I found a pattern online and ordered the yarn. Every day, I impatiently checked the mail, wanting that alpaca to arrive, fast. When it finally did, I cast on those 144 stitches as soon as I took out the yarn. But this time, I understood my aching desire to take on a project as big as a blanket. In February, my beloved aunt, an intricate thread in the fabric of my family, was killed in an automobile accident. My mother, her best friend and daily companion for sixty years, had dropped into a depression. Sam, now nineteen, has gone off to college, and instead of spending the summer at home he is touring in Colorado with the Missoula Children’s Theatre. Around me, friends have just learned they have cancer; friends are getting divorced. And this year marked ten years since Grace died. I still have not been able to stop time. And so, instead, I knit a blanket.
In life there are no do-overs. Or so I thought. Which isn’t to say I didn’t try. Too often, I let boyfriends back in, even though the relationships had failed. Not once. Or even twice. Sometimes more. I would think about all the potential it had, those dizzying kisses, the late nights telling each other everything. And do it again, always with the same disastrous results. I have even been known to obsess about what could have been, not just in love, but in life. Friends tolerate for a while, indulge me until they want to scream. Let it go, they say eventually. Move on. Still, I keep myself awake playing out different scenarios, better endings, better everything.
Add grief to this personality and the results are even worse. It is typical of a grieving person to question what has happened, almost as if they think that if they can make sense of the events, the death itself will make sense too. Like doing an impossible jigsaw puzzle, grieving people keep rearranging the pieces, hoping something will fit. It doesn’t, of course. It can’t. Still, we do it.
After Grace died, I replayed every piece of the puzzle of the last thirty-six hours of her life. Should we have gone to that birthday party? To ballet? Should I have called a doctor sooner? Called a different doctor? Insisted on IV antibiotics? Screamed louder? Somehow, if I could arrange the pieces differently, do it over and over, somehow the end would be different. By the time six months later that I learned to knit, I was weary from grief and from my constant reliving and questioning the events.
That first day, it took me a couple of hours to finally knit six or seven rows and be sent on my way to finish my scarf. As I got back in my car and glanced at the clock dashboard, I couldn’t believe so much time had passed without me crying or falling into that agonizing What Could I Have Done Differently. Knitting, I realized then, was just what I needed to pass the hours in my heartbroken days. So satisfied was I that afternoon, I drove directly to my local grocery store, a place that had become a minefield since Grace died, full of Muzak playing her favorite songs, seasonal fruits she wasn’t here to eat (blueberries in summer; seckel pears in fall), and well-meaning sympathetic acquaintances who approached me with such pity I often had to flee them.
But this day, a knitter now, already planning the sixteen scarves I would knit as presents by Christmas, I went into the Eastside Market and shopped. Until I looked up at an approaching well-wisher. Immediately, a panic attack set in. Short of breath and sweating, I fled to the safety of my car, where my knitting waited. I picked it up and knit like a crazy woman, not even really sure of what I was doing. In thirty minutes, I could no longer fit a needle into the next stitch, a sign I optimistically took as the scarf being completed.
The next morning, when Jen came to open the store, she found me waiting at the door. “I finished,” I announced, holding out my lump of tangled yarn. “Finished?” she said, laughing. “Why, it’s all wrong.” And with that, she slid the stitches off the needle and gently pulled, sending all my hard work into the air, unraveling. I gasped. To me, a writer, that was like hitting the delete button without revising instead. But Jen just smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m just going to fix it.” “Fix it?” “In knitting,” she said as she began to cast on again, “you can fix everything.” Ah, the words I needed to hear most. At last, here was something I couldn’t ruin. Something I could do over, and over, and over. In life, I know now, we can take that lover back or scream louder than anyone has ever screamed, but we can’t rearrange the pieces. Not so in knitting. Which is why when I find myself trying to change the ending, I pick up my needles and yarn instead.
Once my friend Mary and I went to a knitting retreat at Ghost Ranch in Taos, New Mexico. Somewhere between the excitement of knitting together for an entire weekend, a visit with her first in Santa Fe, the gorgeous drive to Taos, and lots of margaritas, Mary and I missed that we weren’t going to be working on our own projects. Instead, we were going to do lace knitting, a delicate, complicated, nearly impossible method. Lace knitting is characterized by stable “holes” in the pattern and is sometimes considered the pinnacle of knitting, because of its complexity and because woven fabrics cannot easily be made to have holes. In short, it’s oxymoronic knitting. Add to this tiny needles, a pattern that required a grid similar to a Battleship game, about fifty women who knit ten or twelve hours a day for fun, and you pretty much have what our weekend held.
Friday night, I ended up taking out everything I’d done under the steely glare of a woman who asked me if I even knew how to knit at all. By Saturday afternoon, Mary and I cut class and went into town for dinner. We put wine in our coffee cups to help us get through that night’s knitting. On Sunday, I gave up and worked on the fingerless gloves I’d brought with me.
What I knew going in to that retreat was that Mary is a good knitter. An excellent knitter really. She has fixed many of my knitting mistakes, picked up lots of dropped stitches for me. She knits sweaters without patterns, and she knits objects: Easter eggs and autumn pears and Christmas ornaments that look exactly like old-fashioned Christmas lights. What I realized leaving that retreat was just how bad a knitter I actually am. I did not like this realization. After all, I wrote a book called The Knitting Circle, which implies that I know my stuff. When I give talks, people often ask me knitting questions. I know my way around a knitting store. I have a stash of yarn and a container filled with needles of all sizes. And I knit, a lot. So the fact that, despite all of this, I am not a very good knitter came as a surprise, and a disappointment.
On the flight home, I thought about all of the truly bad knitting I had done. A raglan sweater so out of shape that it couldn’t be blocked into something wearable. The sweater I knit for my daughter Annabelle that could only be rescued by turning it into a vest. All of the scarves and cowls I could not seed stitch correctly. The list grew as I headed east. Hats that didn’t stay on heads. A pair of socks with one sock so large it could be hung on a mantel at Christmas. I’m not a good knitter, I repeated again and again. How could this possibly be?
But then I thought of all the beautiful things I’d knit. And I thought of all the things that turned out fine after months of working on them. I remembered how when I took ballet for the first time in my twenties, I never moved out of the beginner classes. I knew that I would never dance in Swan Lake. That I was taking ballet for fun, for the way it made me feel when the music swelled and I gracefully bent over the barre. What I was, was a very good beginner. So let it be with knitting, I decided.
Now, when I want to try something difficult, I sign up for a class. Often I’m the worst one there, but not always. I am usually the slowest, the one who asks the most questions. But unlike that weekend of lace knitting, when I make a mistake on these tough projects, I can laugh. After ten years, I am a very good beginning knitter. And that suits me just fine.
The Knitting Hour
“Do you still knit?” people always ask me. As if I learned to knit, wrote a book about it, and have discarded knitting altogether.
“All the time,” I answer, which is mostly true.
For almost a year, I knit constantly, like it was a full-time job with lots of overtime. Grief-stricken, unable to read or write, I turned to knitting to fill the hours when Sam was in school, the hours of my insomnia, the long weekends that sometimes seemed to never end. Slowly, I began to reenter the world of words and the world of people. Some days, I read more than I knitted. Some days, I wrote more.
My knitting self seemed to know when a bad time was coming before my rational self did. Often I would realize that I had been knitting a lot because Grace’s birthday was nearing, or the anniversary of her death. Even now, ten years later, when I find myself knitting more than anything else, I know grief has slapped me again.
But in general, although I carry my knitting everywhere with me, although I knit on airplanes and in airports waiting for airplanes, on long car rides or my weekly train trips into NYC, I don’t knit as much as I did that sad year after Grace died, when nothing else soothed me.
Now, I like to knit for an hour at the end of an afternoon. I like, after a day of writing, to pick up Annabelle at school, help her with her homework, and then get dinner started. Maybe put on the water for pasta, chop tomatoes and basil and fresh mozzarella to toss with it when it’s done. Open a bottle of wine and pour a glass, then take it into what we call the fancy living room. There, in my favorite chair, I pick up my knitting. Annabelle curls up beside me with a book or an art project. The sky turns from blue to lavender. We sit together, quiet, happy. I knit until I hear my husband’s key in the lock. Then I put my knitting down, and the evening begins.
Playing Well With Others
I am not a group person.
I was thrown out of Girl Scouts because I refused to do what the group wanted, which was to earn a Sewing merit badge by cutting a Clorox bottle in half and sewing a piece of fabric to it to make a curler bag. Me, I wanted the Reading merit badge, and had read double the amount of books needed to earn it. My troop leader, Mrs. D, said no, it was Sewing or nothing. I hung up my green uniform forever.
I tried book groups, writing groups, mommy groups, always with the same results. An enthusiastic beginning, an inability to behave myself, an abrupt departure.
But when I first stepped into a knitting circle, all of that changed. Unlike my character in my novel The Knitting Circle who found a perfect, magical one, I became a knitting circle addict. On the bulletin board in my kitchen, I kept a list of all the knitting circles within a fifty-mile radius. Like someone in AA, when the need came to knit, and knit in the company of others, I went to whichever one was meeting right then. There was the knitting circle in which everyone was older than me, by a lot. The one where everyone was younger and had tattoos. The one at the store with the bad yarn. The one led by a woman who yelled at us. The one that served wine. It didn’t matter to me, I loved them all.
Unlike other groups, in a knitting circle you are really not required to say anything. It’s polite to murmur approval if someone else shows what they’ve knitted. It’s acceptable to ask for help if you get confused or make a mistake. But really, all you have to do is sit there and knit.
By now I have gone to many many knitting circles. And I realize that because of them, I actually do better in all kinds of groups. I have learned to listen, even to the person who can’t stop talking about her knitting, her vacation, her husband. I have learned to respect people who are really different from me: younger or older; politically; socioeconomically; in every possible way. Because we can be together and knit and find a place for each other in this simple act. I have learned that I have a lot to learn, that the people in the knitting circle can show me shortcuts, patterns, new yarn. And I have learned that I don’t always have something to say, or something to add to a group. That sometimes, I just want the company of other people. I just want to sit in a circle and knit. By doing this, maybe I am learning how to be a group person after all.
The Things You Love Fit in a Ziplock Bag (or Smaller)
“All you have to do,” Stephanie told me, “is put it in a ziplock bag and then you can bring it everywhere with you.”
Stephanie taught me how to knit socks on size 2 needles, maneuvering four of them at once like a puppeteer. I loved the sock yarn, how it revealed a pattern as I knit. I even loved those tiny needles, once I learned how to keep my stitches on them. I knit socks and gave them away—to my friend Barbara bedridden with cancer, to a friend off to Siberia on a grant. People are stunned into silence when you give them a pair of hand-knit socks. Pablo Neruda wrote: “What is good is doubly good / when it is a matter of two socks.”
I took Stephanie’s advice and placed my socks in progress on the tiny needles into a ziplock bag when I next traveled. On the plane, I took the bag out and happily knit to my destination. Ever since, I travel only with projects that fit in a ziplock bag. Which got me thinking one day as my plane to Florence took off and I removed my needles and yarn from their plastic bag. As I’ve gotten older, I travel alone a lot. This is funny to me, because when I was twenty-one, I became a TWA flight attendant and flew around the world, mostly alone. Back then, although I loved my freedom and independence, I often spent lonely hours roaming exotic cities, gazing at the Pyramids or navigating the steep route to the Acropolis, by myself. At night, I tossed in the strange hotel beds, missing my boyfriend or my parents or even my dog Maggie. I was a happy traveler, but I would wonder: Are they okay? What are they doing right now? I would convert the time zones, subtracting seven or five or nine to better picture exactly where they were in their lives.
Now, like my knitting, I have a way of holding the people I leave behind close. Maybe it’s because I have lost so many of them and have had to learn the hard lesson that even so, they are still with me. Maybe it’s because they can’t come—my mother is aging, my husband is busy, my son is away at college, my daughter is too young. Even so, I feel them all with me, tucked away. I take them out when I need to and hold them near me, always.
It’s what you do when you finish knitting, you cast off the stitches. Some people call it binding off, but that sounds so final, so shut down. To me, you cast off. You send your knitted hat or mittens or socks away, onto your child’s hands, your husband’s head, your friend’s feet. I keep almost nothing that I knit for myself. I used to. I kept that scarf in case I bought a coat it would match. I kept a stack of headbands that I would never wear. But then one day, someone—a knitter—gave me a scarf and hat she’d knit, gave it to me for no good reason except that she thought they matched my hair. “I feel good when I give my knitting away,” she said. And ever since then, I give mine away. I cast it off into the world. Like good wishes, or love, I give it away.
Reprinted from Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood. Copyright © 2014 by Ann Hood. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Ann Hood is the best-selling author of The Red Thread, Comfort, and The Knitting Circle, among other works. She has been the recipient of a Best American Spiritual Writing Award, the Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction, and two Pushcart Prizes. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island. She will teaching at this summer’s Tin House Writer’s Workshop.